By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 18, 2013 at 5:17PM
One sign of success in Hollywood is controversy. Well-reviewed Somali pirate saga "Captain Phillips" is hanging in at the box office against the fall onslaught because it combines a powerful true story with consummate moviemaking from director Paul Greengrass, who not only efficiently builds tension but shows us the points-of-view of the heroic kidnapped Captain Richard Phillips and his crew as well as their Somali pirate torturers.
Right on top of the October 11 opening of this David and Goliath tale, which was adapted by Billy Ray from Phillips' memoir of the 2009 hijacking, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea," some Phillips' seamen, who filed a 2009 lawsuit against the Maersk line, spoke out about the dangers Maersk put them through, asserting among other things that the film was inaccurate and their captain irresponsible.
In the film Phillips (Tom Hanks) is worried about security as he checks over the enormous cargo ship Maersk Alabama. That's because the designated route is past the horn of Africa and Somalia, where pirate warnings are posted. In the film, when a tiny skiff filled with four tall, skinny men arrive at the Alabama, they seem impossibly small against the powerful vessel hosing them with gallons of water. But these Somalis have something Captain Phillips and his men do not: desperation and guns. (In 2009, shipping companies didn't supply security guards, relying on insurance to cover their losses; many now helicopter in protection for their ships.)
It's a tense battle as Phillips and his men try to outwit the pirates, whose implacable leader is wily Muse (well-acted by non-pro Somali emigre Barkhad Abdi, who was recruited with three of his pals by casting director Francine Maisler in Minneapolis). Against seemingly impossible odds, we see the tiny figures climb a ladder up the side of the gigantic ship. Once on board with their guns, the pirates are in charge. "Look at me," Muse orders Phillips. "I'm the Captain now." (This was an improvised moment.)
It's hard not to consider Phillips heroic when the captain kept his crew locked up, away from the pirates, and put himself at considerable risk.
At a WGA event Ray defended the film's accuracy --if anything it toned down some of the horrors, he said, in the interest of a taut two-hour narrative. One criticism of Phillips is that he navigated too close to Somalia's pirates. The problem, Ray explained by drawing me a map, is that the Alabama was heading for the port Mombassa, which was only 50 miles from the Somalia border. And pirates have caught up with ships as far as 850 kilometers off the Somalia coast. These kidnappings go on all the time. In fact, 62 people have been killed by Somali pirates since the movie was released, Ray said.
Greengrass has also addressed the issue as follows:
I saw those stories too, based upon an “anonymous crew member.” Here are the facts. Shortly after the Maersk Alabama incident was successfully resolved, and Captain Phillips returned home safely, some members of the crew sued Maersk Corporation claiming they had been put in harm’s way. They also alleged that Captain Phillips had ignored warnings to stay away from the coast of Somalia. When we started the film, it was a top priority for me to look into this issue in every detail. And I obviously can’t comment on this lawsuit, but what I can say is that myself, along with my colleague Michael Bronner formerly of '60 Minutes,' with whom I worked on 'United 93' and other projects, we researched the background of the Maersk Alabama highjacking in exhausting detail over many months. We spoke to every member of the Alabama crew bar one, all of the U.S. Military responders that played a leading role in these events, and thoroughly researched backgrounds of the four pirates and the issue of Somali piracy generally. And I’m 100% satisfied that the picture we present of these events in the film, including the role playing by Captain Phillips, is authentic. I stand by the picture I give in the film, absolutely.
The movie is an intense thrill ride, as former documentarian Greengrass, using skills he picked up on "United 93," and his regular editor Christopher Rouse (since "The Bourne Supremacy") place the audience in a vise which they tighten until the very end. Greengrass insisted on shooting 75% of this arduous film--which took two and a half months--on the ocean with real ships supplied by the Maersk Line and the U.S. Navy. "The Social Network" producing team --Scott Rudin, Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti (whose military contacts were a huge help getting this made) --had to dicker with the MPAA ratings board and shave one intense lifeboat scene to earn their PG-13.
Still, Hanks' extraordinary acting in the last few scenes, from when he's bound and trapped at gunpoint in a bobbing claustrophobic lifeboat to the finale, will earn the two-time Oscar-winner his sixth nomination. Multiple other nominations are also certain (Rouse and "The Hurt Locker" and "United 93" cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's 35 mm hand-held photography among others) for this well-made and resonant tale about the world's haves and have-nots. "Captain Phillips" reminds that even wealthy and mighty America, with its destroyers, helicopters, drones, SEALs and ammunition, can be all-too vulnerable to a few hungry fishermen.
Producers Brunetti and De Luca have teamed up on several movies, from "The Social Network" and "21" to "Fifty Shades of Grey," which seemed to be proceeding smoothly when I talked to them after a recent Sneak Preview screening of "Captain Phillips," but has now lost its hunky leading man, Charlie Hunnam. De Luca used to run production at New Line Cinema before heading out on his own, producing "Ghost Rider," "Brothers" and "Moneyball," among other titles. And Brunetti is partnered with Kevin Spacey at Trigger Street Productions, which made David Fincher's Netflix Emmy-winner "House of Cards," among other things.
Anne Thompson: This is a very intense movie. How did you get the PG-13?
De Luca: Sometimes with the MPAA, they'll identify a specific shot or sequence or certain scene or plot point, but in this case it was overall intensity so you're kind of left negotiating with yourself a little bit. From what I heard, it's the penultimate scene where he's in a lifeboat and the SEALS take the shots, the length of his scream and the amount of gore. I think Paul went back and forth a little bit producing that by degrees, preserving the integrity of the sequence but ultimately screwing the the PG-13. As you can tell from the movie that precedes that scene, there isn't any language or gratuitous violence or sexual content
How did you get the rights? This was a real story, the actual occurrence was in 2009, so getting the rights was the deal here.
De Luca: It began with everyone watching the story unfold on the news after the incident resolved. Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and I wondered if there was a movie there, and then Dana and Kevin Spacey went to Vermont to talk to Captain Phillips.
Brunetti: I was in military service, so I contacted a lot of my military friends and then some merchant mariners to contact the captain and we ended up with the Maersk representative first. Obviously a lot of people were trying to get to him and about a week after he got back, I got the call to sit down to dinner with me. He still had bruises on his wrists from being bound but what's amazing is you feel kind of like a vulture going in but there are others going in as well. This is what you have to do if you want to get the rights. You would never believe that Phillips went through what he went through. He was an everyman, with a very dry sense of humor like nothing ever happened and about a week after that he agreed that he would go with us. They wanted to wait until the book was completed but they would come back to us once that was done, and he kept his word.
When did Paul Greengrass get involved?
Brunetti: Tom Hanks got involved first. He was circling the project because he knew the story, as everybody else did. Once Billy Ray finished the first draft of the script, Hanks was interested and that obviously raised the profile quite a bit. Then we had quite a few directors circling it and we took some allegiance with some, but when we met with the Maersk representative and with Rich Phillips and his family, particularly in the real life situation, you always ask who will play this person. We threw a pie in the sky and thought, it would be great for Paul Greengrass, and Tom Hanks would be great thinking that we'd end up somewhere else. I told the family, just so you know, producing movies is not that easy. Tom got involved and we met with Paul and he shared a lot of the same sensibilities that we did and he got very involved.
If you look at "United 93" or "Green Zone," Greengrass comes from a documentary background, and obviously that was the incentive. Was he the one who insisted on having the screenplay represent the Somali point of view as well as you did?
De Luca: It was an ambition of ours, but Paul really made that the headline in his first couple meetings with Sony and us. The book was great in presenting Richard's point of view and representing his ordeal but to really do the story justice and get the nuance and complexity of what it means to live in our world where situations like this situation off the coast of Somalia represent a complex world order, that was all Paul in terms of intent and making sure it was there.
Why don't they have armed security guards on these cargo ships?
Brunetti: Everybody asks that and it's not as simple a solution as you might think. They do that now, but there's a possibility of an arms race, that they come back with RFGs. The other, bigger issue is that these ships are going into ports all over the world and they can't go in armed so what they are doing now, some of these ships will have contractors, mercenaries that they'll fly them out once they're out on international waters, put down the security and then they'll fly them off when they're about to get to international waters at the next port. So that does seem like the easiest solution. But it's not.